City of Madison

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the natural step

Guiding Principles

“A sustainable society is one that can persist over generations, one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support.”  Donella Meadows, Beyond the Limits, 1992.

What will this take?  Members of the international scientific community addressed this question. Their conclusions are expressed in The Natural Step’s four system conditions:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  1. Concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust,
  2. Concentrations of substances produced by society,
  3. Degradation by physical means, and
  4. People are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their
    capacity to meet their needs.

What do these guiding principles mean?

1. A society that mines and disperses materials at a rate faster than they are re-deposited back into the Earth's crust will not be sustainable.  This includes the mining and dispersion of materials such as oil, coal and various metals and minerals. Unsustainable levels of these materials will cause unhealthy air, global warming, and contamination of soils as well as surface and ground water.  Practices that reduce these problems include: recycling, reducing demand for energy, using renewable energy, favoring compact mixed-use development over sprawl development, providing transportation systems and vehicles that minimize or eliminate fossil fuel use, and agricultural practices that minimize the use of petrochemical fertilizers and herbicides.

2. A society that produces artificial substances at a rate faster than they can be broken down by natural processes, if they can be broken down at all, will not be sustainable. This includes substances such as most petroleum-based plastics, dioxins, DDT, and PCBs. It also includes materials that are not inherently poisonous but that build up in concentrations that make it difficult or impossible for the Earth to process safely, such as CFCs from refrigerants.  Practices that reduce these problems include: eliminating toxic building materials in construction practices, using alternatives to chemical pesticides and herbicides for landscape and park maintenance as well as in agriculture, using healthy cleaning products, and eliminating hazardous materials in industrial processes.

3. A society that physically degrades natural resources at a rate faster than they are replenished, or completely destroys those resources, will not be sustainable. Examples of such practices include over-harvesting of trees, fish and game, overgrazing, depleting underground aquifers and building sprawl development.  Practices that reduce these problems include: conserving land and water resources, using renewable building materials and other products made using sustainable practices, and developing communities in an efficient, manner that conserves resources.

4.  A society that undermines the ability of people to meet their basic needs will not be sustainable. The Natural Step’s conception of human needs is based on the analysis of Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who suggests there are nine basic human needs: subsistence, protection/security, affection, understanding, participation, idleness, creation, identity. This understanding of human needs asserts that basic needs are finite, few and classifiable, always present, the same in all cultures and all historical periods, and not substitutable one for another. To meet human needs fairly and efficiently it is important to know what they are, and then to be creative in all of our actions to find ways to satisfy more than one need at once. 

Practices that help people meet their basic needs include: improving health care by emphasizing prevention, which satisfies not only our need for protection from illness but also helps satisfy our needs for understanding, participation and subsistence.  Increasing opportunities for public involvement and input in government decision-making satisfies the need for understanding, participation, identity, and creation; and increasing transportation choices satisfies the need for freedom, participation, idleness, and protection.

By keeping the concept of the funnel in mind and using the four system conditions of The Natural Step we can do a better job of working together to meet our needs in a way that is not only less expensive but also much more Earth friendly.